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AFC East offseason update: Patriots remain cream of division

This is the first of a three-part series reviewing what the rest of the AFC East did during the offseason.

The New England Patriots are once again defending Super Bowl champions.

And they remain the cream of the AFC East, if not the conference.

Tom Brady, who turns 42 in August, and Bill Belichick are pushing for their 11th consecutive division title and seventh Super Bowl ring. Who’s going to stop them?

Here's the rundown:

Key additions: DE Michael Bennett (T, Eagles), LB Jamie Collins (FA, Browns), RB Damien Harris (3rd round, Alabama), WR N'Keal Harry (1st round, Arizona State), WR Demaryius Thomas (FA, Texans), TE Benjamin Watson (FA, Saints), CB Joejuan Williams (2nd round, Vanderbilt), DE Chase Winovich (3rd round, Michigan).

Key subtractions: OT Trent Brown, DE Trey Flowers, TE Rob Gronkowski.

Games against the Bills: Sept. 29 at New Era Field; Dec. 21 or 22 (still to be determined) at Gillette Stadium.

Schedule overview: The Patriots are scheduled to play five nationally televised games, including the season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football. That’s followed by three consecutive games against AFC East opponents, an early opportunity to take control of the division. The bye in Week 10 is followed by games at Philadelphia, vs. Dallas, at Houston and vs. Kansas City in a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game.

What to expect on offense: There’s no simple way to replace Gronkowski. Watson is suspended for the first four games of the season after testing positive for banned substances and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who signed a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum this offseason, was cut on the first day of minicamp last month. But with Brady under center, there’s little doubt that the offense will remain productive. Harry provides a big, talented target (6-2, 228) and Thomas has a chance to surprise as he returns from a season-ending Achilles injury. We also may not have seen the last of Josh Gordon. Isaiah Wynn, the team’s first-round pick in 2018, is returning from an Achilles injury and the leading candidate to start at left tackle after Brown signed with the Raiders.

What to expect on defense: Former linebackers coach Brian Flores took over defensive play-calling duties after the 2018 departure of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who left to become head coach of the Detroit Lions. But defense is Belichick’s forte, and this season’s group may be superior to last season’s defense that finished seventh in the NFL in points allowed. Bennett, 33, is certainly older than Flowers, who turns 26 in August, but has been a more productive player over the last two seasons (17.5 sacks compared to 14). And he only cost a late-round pick in a trade with Philadelphia, whereas Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million deal with Detroit. The secondary is anchored by All-Pro corner Stephon Gilmore and received a boost via the draft in Williams, a big slot corner. Collins returns to the fold, joining linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy.

What it all means: With the notable exception of Gronk, the Patriots replaced their biggest losses with cheaper and, perhaps, equally if not more effective alternatives. That’s been a hallmark of Belichick’s reign. As has dominance over the AFC East. The Patriots have won the division in 16 of 18 seasons since Brady became the team’s starting quarterback. And they’ve reached the Super Bowl in four of the last five seasons. It seems a safe bet the dynasty continues.

Next: New York Jets.

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